Editorial: Recognize a great effort
Six full months after the onslaught of Tropical Storm Irene wrecked central and southern Vermont by wiping out more than 200 state bridges, making hundreds of miles of roads inaccessible, isolating communities for days on end, and knocking out power to thousands of Vermonters, we again are reminded of the state’s resilience, its readiness and everyone’s willingness to go to extraordinary measures to take care of those in need and to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. The most recent reminder was learning last week that CVPS received the industry’s highest honor for storm recovery for its response to Irene.
Among the many things in the paths of Irene’s fury were more than 450 utility poles wiped out by the flooding. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, which was one of the worst floods in the state’s history, more than 73,000 customers were without power and 13 communities were isolated — without power, road access or communications of almost any kind.
Incredibly, we see in hindsight, CVPS had the power restored to everyone by the end of the fifth day. To do that, is a story all its own.
“Irene presented some of the most difficult challenges in our history, but our employees reacted with poise and professionalism,” President and CEO Larry Reilly said recently in light of the company’s award. “They put customers’ needs above all others and worked with extraordinary determination to restore service quickly and safely, and demonstrated once again their remarkable dedication.”
Entire CVPS systems disappeared in the flooding, with no hint of where they previously existed, CVPS officials recalled, adding that “the storm also damaged substations and hydroelectric plants, as record-high waters inundated station houses, undermined substation foundations and destroyed equipment. Phone and cellular service were also interrupted, compounding the challenge of restoration and communication with customers and state and local road and emergency crews. Given the destruction of hundreds of roads and bridges, CVPS initially thought restoration of electricity would take weeks, but officials decided early in the recovery that a lack of roads would not stop the restoration efforts. Employees were told to do whatever was necessary to safely restore service."
To that end, CVPS employees were commended for their following deeds:
• Hiked, biked and used off-road motorcycles and ATVs to access areas where roads disappeared.
• Hired a contractor to build a temporary road to bypass massive washouts and allow immediate access to several towns, including Mendon and Killington, after Route 4 was washed away. Crews restored all power in Mendon and Killington in a day; Route 4 took 18 days to repair.
• Installed a portable substation to restore power to three isolated towns after the local substation in Rochester was destroyed.
• Delivered hundreds of newspapers and flyers with storm information to the town of Rochester, which was cut off from all forms of outside contact for several days, when CVPS crews became the first outsiders to get into town.
• Gained state regulators’ approval to survey, stake and build miles of entirely new lines in new places after existing lines and the roads they abutted disappeared — within an hour of making the case for the need.
• Captured dramatic aerial and ground images of the devastation in areas most media outlets could not access, which helped the media, state and local officials and customers understand the severity of the damage early on.
• Created a direct link, with the assistance of Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller, between CVPS recovery planners and Agency of Transportation officials, which ensured critical cooperation between utility workers, AOT crews, National Guard staff and the Governor’s office. This significantly speeded restoration and road construction efforts.
• Maintained constant contact with the governor’s press secretary, the spokesman for Vermont Emergency Management and news media to ensure regular, critical safety messages were delivered — starting three days before the storm.
“The level of collaboration with state agencies and the cooperation that blossomed was unprecedented,” said Joe Kraus, senior vice president for engineering, operations and customer service. “In a situation that could have devolved to broad confusion, the state agencies, towns and CVPS found ways to work together, which allowed us to restore service much quicker than we initially anticipated.”
“CVPS’s preparation, planning and plan execution represent a model of how a rural electric utility should handle major storm situations,” said Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, which gave CVPS the prestigious award. “The company went to extraordinary lengths to prepare for the storm, demonstrating tremendous foresight and reaching out for mutual aid from as far away as Kansas, Missouri and Texas, since East Coast utilities were all preparing for the storm. That, combined with CVPS employees’ uncommon ingenuity and dedication to customers, allowed the company to restore service quickly and safely, in many cases well before customers were even accessible by road.”
When we recall other disasters across the country, we recognize that no two are alike, but we’d wager few states could have achieved the cooperation across all facets of state, federal and emergency relief — including making roads passable in order to get utility crews into isolated areas — as quickly and efficiently as Vermont did. CVPS was a big part of that effort and of Vermont’s extraordinary response in the aftermath of Irene. We knew CVPS’s service on those days was exemplary; it’s also nice to have national organizations confirm that as well. Congratulations, CVPS, and thanks once again.